October 19, 2008

The Fraudulent Threat of Voter Fraud

During the presidential debate last Wednesday, Republican candidate John McCain pressed his ongoing attack on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an organization focused on advocacy and voter registration for low- and middle-income families, claiming that ACORN "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Friday, his running mate, Sarah Palin, kept up the heat, continuing GOP efforts to both tar ACORN as corrupt, and tie the group to Democratic nominee Barack Obama, warning, "We can’t allow leftist groups like ACORN to steal this election."

The press is also reporting breathlessly that ACORN has submitted a raft of blatantly false voter registrations, including one for Mickey Mouse in Florida, enough to cover the starting line-up for the Dallas Cowboys in Nevada, and seventy-two for one man in Ohio. Thursday brought leaked word that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has launched an investigation to determine whether ACORN fosters registration fraud systematically, but as too often occurs with the majority of our ineffectual press corps, the real issues are being missed.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize the difference between voter registration fraud and voter fraud. The former means that a phony name is registered as an active voter; the second that a vote is successfully cast by someone who should not have been allowed to do so. With a minimum of reflection, it is crystal clear that, absent proper identification, Mickey Mouse will not be voting, nor will players for the Dallas NFL franchise, (except, presumably, in their home districts, and then only with proper identification) and despite having registered 72 times, the man from Ohio will not get to cast an equal number of ballots.

Second, ACORN pays its canvassers by completed voter registration. While there isn't really a more attractive alternative, it's clear that this compensation structure provides an incentive for dishonest workers to submit phony registrations with the aim of padding their paychecks. In most states, ACORN is required to submit all collected registrations - imagine the outcry if it was learned that completed registrations were being withheld! - so the group works to separate and flag for official review those that appear suspicious before they are turned in to state authorities. The result is that ACORN is reporting almost all of the fraudulent registrations itself, and far from creating an opportunity to defraud the election system, it is actually the target of financial fraud from a few dishonest employees. (13,000 ACORN employees have registered 1.3 million voters for this election cycle; the number of registrations that are fraudulent is a tiny fraction.)

Third, despite being a frequent target of the Republican Party, there has never been a single conviction against ACORN, because on the rare occasions when investigations have led to court proceedings, no one has ever been able to prove that false registrations are an effort to defraud the electoral process. Spurious registrations are about money for dishonest individual workers, and they are about defrauding ACORN, but they are certainly not about "destroying the fabric of democracy."

The voter fraud described by Senator McCain and Governor Palin would require a massive operation that warehouses fake voter data and hires thousands of operatives - each devoted to cheating the system at the risk of federal prosecution - to cast ballots posing as these phony voters. It is wholly impractical, it is impossible to carry out, and recent reports in states like Missouri - which has had zero voter fraud in the last 10 years - bear this out.

So why is ACORN an issue at all? Well, if there is one thing that the Bush years have taught us, it is this: If the Republican Party is vociferously attacking the actions of some group, you can be just about certain that it is deeply and nefariously involved in something close to that which they accuse others of doing. That is the case here, as well.

While using a docile press corps to help stoke the fires of outrage among the Republican base, - outrage that has now spilled over into the vandalism of ACORN offices and intimidation of ACORN workers - the GOP is actively working to suppress as many Democratic-leaning votes as possible. The ACORN faux scandal is one part of that scheme - casting doubt on the validity of massive registrations for lower-income citizens who tend to vote Democrat - but the other piece of the puzzle is the widespread effort to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. For instance:
  • In Michigan, the state GOP had planned to challenge the eligibility of voters who had lost their homes through foreclosure, but were stymied by press attention and a successful lawsuit that appears to have stopped their plan.

  • The Montana state Republican party moved to challenge 6,000 registrations in Democratic-leaning counties, once again, ostensibly to combat "voter fraud". The challenge was ultimately dropped because of public controversy.

  • In Texas, a report by a rightwing think tank alleged, in an effort to stir up both anti-immigrant sentiment and generate a voter fraud controversy, that as many as 333,000 non-citizens were likely registered to vote in the state. An investigation by county election administrators, however, debunked the report declaring that there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread voter fraud.
While the examples above represent efforts that (at least for now) have been unsuccessful, it must not be forgotten that the strategy of disenfranchising opposition voters in a wholesale manner has a long history in the Republican Party. Further, it goes directly to the heart of the recent U.S. Attorney scandal, which saw qualified and high-performing federal prosecutors fired for demonstrating insufficient zeal in pursuing voter fraud allegations made by GOP politicians against Democrats. David Iglesias, perhaps the best known of the dismissed U.S. Attorneys - and a Republican himself - believes that there are a host of red flags associated with the attention being paid to ACORN and the FBI's investigation. As reported by Talking Points Memo Muckraker:
"I'm astounded that this issue is being trotted out again," Iglesias told TPMMuckraker. "Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, it's a scare tactic." In 2006, Iglesias was fired as U.S. attorney thanks partly to his reluctance to pursue voter-fraud cases as aggressively as DOJ wanted - one of several U.S. attorneys fired for inappropriate political reasons, according to a recently released report by DOJ's Office of the Inspector General.

Iglesias, who has been the most outspoken of the fired U.S. attorneys, went on to say that the FBI's investigation seemed designed to inappropriately create a "boogeyman" out of voter fraud.

And he added that it "stands to reason" that the investigation was launched in response to GOP complaints.
As we noted earlier, last year, Senator Dianne Feinstein publicly highlighted changes made to DOJ's election crimes manual, which lowered the bar for voter-fraud prosecutions, and made it easier to bring vote-fraud cases close to the election.

Speaking today to
TPMMuckraker, Iglesias called such changes "extremely problematic."

The way in which the news was revealed today - Associated Press sourced its report to two "senior law enforcement officials" who "spoke on condition of anonymity because Justice Department regulations forbid discussing ongoing investigations particularly so close to an election" - is also raising eyebrows.

Both Iglesias and Bud Cummins - another of the U.S. attorneys who, according to the IG report, was also fired for political reasons - told TPMMuckraker that DOJ guidelines do allow U.S. attorneys to speak publicly about an investigation, even before bringing an indictment, if it's to allay public concern over an issue.

But that certainly wouldn't cover anonymous leaks. "If you can't say it with your name on it, it's fair to say you should not be saying it," Cummins told TPMMuckraker.
To be blunt, the Republican Party has this down to a science. Voter rolls are purged right before the election, with the result that duly-registered voters arrive at their polling place to discover they can't vote, and are then forced to use provisional ballots which are almost never counted and routinely discarded at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, easily-hackable electronic voting machines - manufactured by companies headed by partisan GOP supporters and already switching early votes from Obama to McCain in West Virginia - are forced on the public, and laws requiring photo IDs at the polls are put into effect, all despite the fact that there is almost no evidence of voter fraud at all, never mind voter fraud on a grand scale.

Yesterday, the Obama campaign sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey explicitly linking the very real U.S. Attorney scandal with the very much less real ACORN controversy, and calling for an investigation into the manner in which ACORN is being targeted by the federal government at the behest of the Republican Party. Robert Bauer, Senator Obama's general counsel, writes:
History is repeating itself. As Election Day approaches - just as in 2004 and 2006 - Republican Party officials and operatives nationwide, including the candidates themselves, are fomenting specious vote fraud allegations, and there are disturbing indications of official involvement or collusion.
Gerry Hebert, a former acting head of the Department of Justice's voting rights section, agrees, calling the FBI investigation "a continuation of injecting DOJ into what has clearly become a political issue." In a follow-up conference call, Mr. Bauer declared :
This is a sham anti-fraud campaign that comes 24-hours after John McCain’s dramatic pronouncement about tearing the fabric of democracy and now you have a leak of this supposed fraud from the Department of Justice. It’s creating an environment of fear and intimidation.
But then, that's the whole idea behind the fraudulent threat of voter fraud.

For a sense of the anger that the McCain campaign has stirred up among the Republican rank and file over the ACORN "issue" - the same anger that is now turning to violence and threats - take a look at the video below.

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